US to end support for Saudi-led war in Yemen, says Biden

President lays out foreign policy priorities with promise to return US to leadership role

US president Joe Biden pledged to "earn back" the country's leadership position in the world as he delivered his first major foreign policy speech as president.

In an address at the state department, Mr Biden declared: “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the centre of our foreign policy,” adding: “America cannot afford to be absent any longer on the world stage.”

In a distinct break with former president Donald Trump, who espoused an "America First" policy during his four years in power, Mr Biden said "alliances are our greatest assets". He highlighted his recent conversations with world leaders, including Canada, Britain, France and Germany, in the first days of his presidency, and South Korea and Australia this week, as he promised to repair relationships with US allies across the world.

But he also addressed the challenges facing the administration. Name-checking China and Russia, he said: "American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism."


Regarding Russia, he called for opposition leader Alexei Navalny to "be released immediately and without condition".

"I made it clear to president [Vladimir] Putin, in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia's aggressive actions – interfering in our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens – are over," he said, referencing the phone call between the two men.

But he also said Washington could work constructively with Moscow, highlighting this week’s decision to extend the New Start nuclear arms control agreement.

Similarly, he vowed to confront “the challenges posed by our prosperity, security and democratic values by our most serious competitor, China”. But he indicated a willingness to work with Beijing on issues such as climate change.

Saudi-led war

In one of the most significant announcements, he confirmed the end of US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. "This war has to end," he said of the conflict which has seen a Saudi-led coalition clash with Iranian-backed rebels and has been deemed a humanitarian disaster by the United Nations.

The commitment to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia is a blow to relations between Washington and Riyadh which flourished under the Trump administration, though Mr Biden emphasised that the US would still help the kingdom to "defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity and its people".

The Biden administration also announced the appointment of a new envoy to Yemen, Tim Lenderking – an indication of the new administration's interest in the situation in the war-torn country.

Addressing the military coup in Myanmar, the president called for the immediate release of civilian leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, detained by the military this week. "There can be no doubt; in a democracy, force should never seek to overrule the will of the people or attempt to erase the outcome of a credible election," he said.

Mr Biden also advocated a "foreign policy for the middle-class", a concept outlined by his national security adviser Jake Sullivan earlier in the day, which will see US foreign policy decisions based on their impact on the lives of ordinary Americans.

The location of Mr Biden’s foreign policy speech, at the state department, was symbolic. Mr Trump pared back US diplomatic resources during his presidency. Ahead of his speech, Mr Biden addressed staff members directly, including many who joined the event virtually from across the world.

“This has been a difficult few years,” he said.

“Those of you who are stationed overseas and have been stationed overseas – you’re America’s face.  You’re what people see . . . you are the face of America, and it matters,” he said. “I’m going to have your back.”

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent